Juneau volunteer watches the birds and the stars

Juneau Color

Posted: Friday, February 12, 1999

Rich Greenfield holds the eagle pressed against him. Its head and body are mostly covered in a black cloth, but the talons splay out nakedly above the sweep of tail feathers.

Scot Tiernan, volunteer head of operations at the Juneau Raptor Center, wants to weigh the eagle because it apparently didn't eat the day before.

``If they're not eating on their own, it could possibly be a neurological problem,'' he said.

The bald eagle, about 3 years old, was sent to the center after it was caught in a leg-hold trap in late December near Yakutat. Volunteers call it Mellow Yellow for its calm demeanor.

Tiernan kept Mellow Yellow at his garage for about three weeks, letting it recover from its wounds. Now Mellow Yellow stays in a rehabilitation room at the center, near Twin Lakes, gaining strength before it can be released.

``What was interesting was he didn't like fish,'' Tiernan said. ``I'm pushing it in and he was trying to spit it out.''

It was like trying to force-feed a child, center volunteer Janet Capito said. Mellow Yellow would duck and weave its head as Tiernan angled food toward its mouth. Eventually, the eagle would squawk and Tiernan would shove the food in.

Volunteers clean Mellow Yellow's feet to prevent infections. Then the eagle is bundled in a blanket, tied up with bandages and put on a scale like a parcel. The salmon-scorning bird has actually gained weight.

Caring for animals comes naturally to Tiernan. He grew up on 30 acres of land surrounded by abandoned orchards near the Ohio River, in western Pennsylvania.

``As a kid, I grew up in what I consider the idyllic place,'' he said. ``We had raccoons in the house. We had a pheasant in the den for four months with a broken wing. It sat on the TV set.''

Tiernan, 53, once thought about becoming a science teacher. But life took him into the U.S. Navy, where he was an aviation electronics technician and flew planes from aircraft carriers. Later he served in the Coast Guard for nearly 23 years, including a long stint in Juneau in the 1980s before he closed his career here in 1995.

Yet now he's become a sort of teacher through his volunteer work at the raptor center and at the Marie Drake planetarium.

``He's been in charge of all of the operations,'' Capito said. ``Operations entails going out on bird calls, which sometimes is very frequently. Scot's been doing all kinds of work. He's been going into the schools,'' she said.

``I've always been interested in wildlife and nature,'' Tiernan said.

The raptor center takes in all kinds of injured wild birds, not just birds of prey.

``We take anything that flies without a propeller pretty much,'' he said.

The big ones usually end up in Tiernan's garage for the initial treatment. Often dehydrated and emaciated, they need fluids, sometimes administered under the skin or into veins.

He has two birds rehabilitating in his garage now. It takes about three hours a day to care for them. Sometimes he's had as many as seven birds there.

The reward comes when the birds spring from a volunteer's arms, take flight and never look back.

``I really enjoy working with the animals,'' Tiernan said. ``You get a very good feeling when you can bring one back and release it to the wild.''

But collecting injured birds can be dangerous. Tiernan has plunged into rivers, climbed cliffs and once scrambled after an eagle in a Dumpster, wrestling it into the trash.

The work also can be stressful, he said. Volunteers come to recognize individual birds' personalities.

``It's really hard when you put hundreds of hours into an animal and it dies and you don't know why.''

That sort of problem doesn't happen with galaxies.

Tiernan is also one of several volunteers who run the planetarium in the Marie Drake building and develop their own educational programs.

``I've been a stargazer because where I grew up we didn't have any night pollution. I could see stars all the time,'' Tiernan said.

``We sort of think of him as our leader,'' said planetarium volunteer Michael Orelove.

``He's very knowledgeable, whether you're talking about planets, galaxies or the northern lights. But it's more than being knowledgeable. He has this great enthusiasm that you can see is contagious,'' he said.

Tiernan teaches himself about birds and astronomy from books, magazines, the Internet and local experts such as veterinarians and college professors.

``I really enjoy working with the kids,'' Tiernan said. ``I'm always amazed at how smart they are, how much knowledge they have.''

He's learned to gear his presentations to different age groups. With young children, ``don't just stand up and talk to them. Unless you're Bugs Bunny, it's not going to work.''

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